Library and Archives Canada’s “false” portraits

A false portrait is an imaginary portrait, usually of a well-known or famous person. The portrait is usually not based on a true likeness and is often created long after the person’s death.

Extremely significant historical figures often did not sit for portraits during their lifetimes. Yet, there has always been a demand for “true” portraits of them.

False portraits were not necessarily attempting to trick or fool people—in many cases, those who created or promoted them did so for very public-spirited reasons. From the 19th century onwards, this famous false portrait of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, served an important commemorative and educational role.

Lithograph attributed to Louis-César-Joseph Ducornet, 1854. It shows an image of a man facing slightly away from the viewer. He wears a black doublet with sleeves that reveal a white shirt underneath. In the background is a view of Quebec City.

False portrait of Samuel de Champlain (MIKAN 2919672)

A false portrait often tells us a lot more about the society that created it than about the historical figure that it is meant to represent. It has been suggested that this pious-looking image made the perfect frontispiece to 19th-century histories of New France, developed by historian-churchmen. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that the portrait is actually copied from a 17th-century engraving of a French civil servant, whose morality was dubious (in French only).

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds other intriguing false portraits in its collections. For example, LAC acquired this rare miniature wax portrait, one of very few portraits in this fragile medium to survive.

Wax miniature, by an anonymous artist, early 19th century. This rather generic wax miniature shows a man in profile wearing a red British coat embellished with gold trimming, a white cravat and a blue waistcoat. He has long white hair, tied back. The miniature is quite sculptural.

Wax portrait of General James Wolfe (MIKAN 3793977)

Though labelled a portrait of General James Wolfe, famous for his role during the decisive Battle of Quebec (1759), the miniature does not reproduce any of Wolfe’s known physical features. Yet several near identical wax miniatures exist in other collections—each of these also labelled, in the past, as Wolfe portraits. It’s possible to speculate that many casts of this portrait must have been made, for so many fragile examples to have survived.

Wax was cheap and easy to produce in multiple copies. The portrait was likely created as a kind of mass-produced celebrity image, in response to a vast appetite for portraits of “Wolfe the Hero” that arose among the general public during the 19th century. Probably created long after Wolfe’s death by an anonymous entrepreneur, it presents an idealized and heroic-looking profile view of a young officer—exactly the kind of image guaranteed to satisfy the public imagination.

One thought on “Library and Archives Canada’s “false” portraits

  1. Pingback: False Portraits: In genealogy, don't take portraits at face value.

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